The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, one of four state-operated farmers markets in North Carolina, has a new manager. In late April, Fred Cole replaced Arlene Haigler, who had served as acting manager since 2012, when longtime manager Frank Suddreth retired.
Cole comes to Charlotte from Upstate New York, where he was the general manager of the Capital District Cooperative Inc., a farmers market in Menands. While there, he was responsible for increasing the number of vendors at the market, growing the market occupancy rate to 100 percent and making renovations to improve the market grounds.
We recently spoke with Cole about his background, opportunities he sees in Charlotte and the importance of local food.
Q: Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to the area?
A: I’ve been involved in a farmers market for the past six years in the Albany area. I had gotten to know through the National Association of Produce Market Managers Ronnie Best and Rick Cecil (managers at the State Farmers Market and Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, respectively) pretty well. They always had positive things to say about North Carolina and markets here. When Ronnie suggested there might be a position opening in Charlotte, it was right in the middle of a very cold, very nasty winter in New York. So, I thought I might apply for the job.
Q: Do you have an agricultural background?
A: No, I didn’t come from agriculture at all. I’ve owned and/or managed some very successful businesses in Albany over the past 30 years. When the market up there started looking for a manager, they decided they wanted to stop running it like a club and run it more like a business. Fortunately, I was very successful in turning that from an operation that was breaking even at best into an operation that’s now making a very comfortable profit.
Q: What about your business background helped in managing markets before?
A: When it comes to business management, I believe there are two key words, “common sense.” For example, you don’t hire an outside contractor when you have someone on staff who can do a job. If you have empty buildings, you rent them out. Little things like that. Common sense.
Q. What opportunities do you see at the Charlotte market?
A: The possibilities for Charlotte are huge. There’s a whole list of things you can do to just let people know this market exists. There are 40 new people moving to Charlotte every day of the year. You’ve got to get out there and let those 40 new people know what this market has to offer.
This past Saturday, we had almost 10,000 people here, and 165 farmers and other vendors. It’s definitely a destination place, we just have to make people think of the market as another attraction like the (Charlotte Motor) Speedway.
Q: Do you have a favorite N.C. product?
A: [Laughter] Well, today it happens to be the garlic-chive goat cheese from Bosky Acres that I got Saturday. I had that on crackers and couldn’t stop eating it. Last week, it was peach ice cream from a local creamery. I think it changes by the day.
Q: There’s a lot of buzz about local food right now. What does “local” mean to you?
A: Local is an hour or two drive at the most. Obviously for many people, local is in their backyard. But, for a metropolitan area like Charlotte, that’s not possible. I would think local means you can pick it the same day you eat it.
Q: Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. How do you see the market’s role in Charlotte’s development moving forward?
A: I don’t know. I’m still at the analyzing stage. We have to tap into the growth. We have to get in contact with the apartment complexes in this area and the realtors, and let them know that Charlotte is more than great museums and a speedway. How we go about doing that? I’m not sure yet.
This market draws from a huge area. There was a lady who left her bags at the Charlotte market last week. I took them to her house so she wouldn’t have to come back. She lived 22 miles away, and she’s down here every week. So, it’s very different.
Q. What do you want people to know about the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market that they may not already know?
A: The variety is huge. We’ve got all the North Carolina seasonal fruits and vegetables, but we’ve also got other vendors bringing in fresh produce from outside the area. We’ve got fresh breads, seafood, and the variety is as good as I’ve seen at any market in the country.
Q: What are some of the events you have coming up at the market?
A: Our next big event is Watermelon Day on July 12. Visitors can come out and enjoy free samples of N.C. watermelons and purchase some watermelons to take home. The other big event is Peach Day, coming up on July 26. We’ll have free peach ice cream and plenty of N.C. peaches and peach products for purchase. In addition, the Master Gardeners of Mecklenburg County are here every other Saturday offering gardening advice for visitors.
The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market is located at 1801 Yorkmont Road in Charlotte. The market is currently open Tuesday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 12:30 to 6 p.m.